Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE PUBLIC BEWILDERMENT ABOUT THE HIGHER EDUCATION. ( From The Economist, 2 nd December, 1876.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE PUBLIC BEWILDERMENT ABOUT THE HIGHER EDUCATION. ( From “ The Economist, ” 2 nd December, 1876.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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THE PUBLIC BEWILDERMENT ABOUT THE HIGHER EDUCATION.
Mr. Forster is a sagacious man, and we turned with even the more interest to his address at Aberdeen, on the ground that he had not had a University education. What a man who was in every respect able enough and cultivated enough to form a shrewd practical judgment, but who had not been a University or even a public school man himself might think of the class of University men as such, and of their advantages and disadvantages in the actual business of life, and particularly of the apparent result of University education in teaching them to guard against their own weakness, and to make the best of their strong points, was a subject on which we thought it possible Mr. Forster might have something very well worth hearing to say, and certainly a subject on which it would have been extremely interesting to have heard Mr. Forster’s opinion. But if Mr. Forster will forgive us for saying so, we rather think his address showed that he was, for a man of his capacity, a little unduly afraid of forming an independent opinion of University men and of the results of their training. His address, though not wanting in shrewd remark, was on the whole too propitiatory to University studies, and deficient in free actual criticism on the value of those studies as elements of character. When the cultivated eye for understanding life is once acquired, as it has been by Mr. Forster, it matters comparatively little how it has been acquired, whether by the help of a University, or in spite of a University; or, as in Mr. Forster’s case, simply without a University. But Mr. Forster pays perhaps the most remarkable tribute in his power to the practical importance of a University education at least in England, by the over-modesty of his own tone in dealing with the subject. This shows that in England at least a University education does one thing—namely, emancipates men from any excessive appreciation of its importance, such as the ablest men who have not passed through it are inclined to attach to it. It would seem as if it took a University education to teach a man that, excellent as it is, it is not all that the outside world supposes, and may, under certain unfavourable conditions, be even rather mischievous than otherwise. Mr. Forster must have had plenty of experience at the Education Office of men to whom a University education had not given half as much true culture as he himself had extracted out of a busy life without a University education. And we only wish that the grand repute which generally attaches to the unknown, had not prevented Mr. Forster from giving us a straightforward estimate of what seemed to him the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of education, as we see it at work in England and Scotland; and also that, if he had formed any judgment on that head, he would have told us whether the English or Scotch system appears to him to have turned out the men most equal to the affairs of life. Not only, however, do we find no such actual criticism of the better and worse effects of University culture, as we cannot but think Mr. Forster might, if he had taken heart, have given us, but we find in his address a certain indefinitiveness of view as to what University education can, and ought to give, and the mode in which it should give it. In the earlier part of his address, he speaks of it as the ideal of a University to give the student “the information most useful to him, in such a manner as to enable him best to use it”. Now if that were really the ideal of a University system, a University system would, we take it, for all but professional men, be wholly needless. We take it that for the purpose of success in a very great many departments of life, and those departments some of the most important to the well-being of the community, a very early apprenticeship to the work to be done gives a lad “the information most useful to him, in such a manner as to enable him best to use it”. But then we mean by the word “useful,” “useful” in the narrow sense, useful for the purposes of what is ordinarily termed a successful career, useful for the making of a prosperous business and the keeping of a prosperous business. University culture, we take it, is desired, and in general rightly desired, for the sake of something beyond this—for the sake of giving a wider outlook into life, and a finer appreciation of its various elements, than any mastery of “the information most useful to a man, in such a manner as to enable him best to use it,” would of itself imply. If University culture were not wanted for its own sake, there would be but little of it, we fancy, required for the purposes merely of securing to men the knowledge most useful to them, with the best means of applying it. In other parts of Mr. Forster’s address, however, the largest possible appreciation of all kinds of culture is implied, not only for the purpose of the politician—with which he was chiefly dealing—but for their own sake. So that, on the whole, the bewilderment which, as we think, the English world in general shows in dealing with the vast subject of the higher education, Mr. Forster’s address rather seems to us to reflect than to remove.
We sometimes think that the English genius, like the Roman genius, was in some respects better fitted to deal with the comparatively simpler problems of the earlier days of the Empire, than with those more complex conditions which crowd upon and distract the political minds which have to determine the course of the nation in the later days of democratic ascendancy and the elaborate division of intellectual labour. It seems pretty clear, we think, that this was true of Rome. In the time when her jurisprudence was comparatively simple, and rough justice, with military promptitude, courage, and discipline were the chief qualities which were needed for political pre-eminence, the Roman genius was far more than equal to all the demands upon it. But as soon as the questions connected with slavery, and the questions connected with popular rights, and the questions arising out of the annexation of great provinces, whose populations could not easily be dealt with by legislation proceeding from Rome, and which yet could not easily be trusted with powers of self-government, and lastly, the questions springing from a rapidly growing complexity of legal distinctions,—came to harass and perplex the practical genius of Rome, the age of decay began, and the character which had been so great amidst the physical pressure of invasion or treason, betrayed how much less suited it was to battle with the hundreds of confusions and complexities which were now substituted for one great peril, or one great call for heroic self-denial. If English institutions should ever collapse, it is not perhaps a mere wild speculation to suppose that it may be beneath the artificial complexity of modern life, which certainly not infrequently seems to be extremely bewildering to Englishmen.
At least with regard to the higher education we seem to observe some beginning of such a failure. Half a century and less ago, we had at Oxford and Cambridge two very different systems of education, which, imperfect as they were, still succeeded admirably in securing for those who really submitted their minds to them a very thorough intellectual discipline, the one in Greek and Latin scholarship, and certain great historical and philosophical writers, the other in mathematical reasoning and mathematical methods of computation. A first-class man at Oxford really had gained an insight into the genius of the Greek and Latin language, and especially into some of the masterpieces of Greek and Latin literature; for instance, the history of Thucydides and Aristotle’s Ethics. A high Cambridge wrangler might be assumed to be really familiar with the greatest efforts at geometrical reasoning, and the highest triumphs of those comparatively modern and most original devices for economising imaginative power which are contained in the methods of the differential and integral calculus. Then came a period when a host of other new sciences opened upon us. Comparative philology took far more elaborate forms, requiring a very wide field of linguistic knowledge; history took out a new lease of life, and established almost new principles of evidence; mathematical physics enlarged so rapidly that it took a man more time to cover its new developments in a single direction—like physical optics for example—than it cost him to master the whole elementary mathematics and physics of the earlier period; a whole host of new sciences of a very different class emerged, physical geography and biology, in those intimate relations with one another which have been shown to subsist by Darwin and his collaborateurs; geology, with its various and striking developments into what is now called palæontology, or the inferences which may be drawn concerning states of life long passed away from the traces that still remain; and at the same time the scientific treatment of law and physiology took quite new developments. The English people saw distinctly, that with all these new branches of knowledge breaking upon us, it would never do to limit the higher education to the two old fields. But the variety and complexity of the new outlook bewildered them, and they failed to see that the essence of what was useful in the old system was its thoroughness, and that whatever should be altered, the plan of requiring the most thorough knowledge from those who wished to attain the same distinctions as of old, ought not to be altered. To our minds it seems clear that while a great many new alternatives of study should have been given—and this was the principle of the late Prince Consort’s first proposed change at Cambridge—as thorough a mastery of these new studies should have been required for high honours as was required under the old régime in the Oxford final schools and the Cambridge mathematical schools. We believe that it is just this thoroughness—though it is in one narrow practical field, the limitation to which is too apt to narrow the mind—which a lad who is early apprenticed to the business to which he is to devote his life, gains; and that no University system which does not give him this thoroughness can really be otherwise than dangerous to him in later life. If he gets a habit of mistaking a smattering for a real knowledge of a subject, he more or less spoils his mind for practical life. We fear that our University authorities are forgetting this, and even substituting a very inferior discipline in a good number of subjects, for that thorough discipline in one or two, which, however limited it may seem, really teaches a man the limits of his own knowledge, and the extent of his own ignorance far more clearly than a half-knowledge of many things can do. We had hoped that Mr. Forster, as a man of the world who has attained his culture without our Universities, and is therefore the better able to criticise their deficiencies, would have pointed this out; whereas the general drift of his address appears to us rather to favour the attempting many things, instead of mastering one or two. Yet it is as true of University studies as of any other department of life—that the jack-of-all-trades will be master of none.